BOURBONNAIS — The Bourbonnais Elementary School District is fighting to keep under wraps records the sexual harassment grievance against outgoing Superintendent Dan Hollowell.
In response to a Daily Journal complaint, the attorney general’s office decided to look into the district’s decision to keep secret an employee’s grievance against Hollowell and the reports from the investigation.
In late June, the board placed Hollowell on unpaid leave pending his resignation or firing.
In a reply to the attorney general last week, the district’s lawyer, Brian Crowley, said the two investigatory reports involving Hollowell were “confidential” communications subject to the attorney-client privilege because lawyers conducted the inquiry. The district pointed to a court case that it says applied the privilege to investigations.
However, an appeals court stated in 2003, “(I)n meeting its burden, the public body may not simply treat the words ‘attorney-client privilege’ or ‘legal advice’ as some talisman, the mere utterance of which magically casts a spell of secrecy over documents at issue.”
In an interview, Don Craven, an attorney for the Illinois Press Association, said public bodies typically are required to release “the underlying factual basis” of investigations. But he said sometimes attorneys use the privilege as a shield for documents that would otherwise be public.
Ultimately, the client is the one who asserts the attorney-client privilege. In this case, the school board is the client. Asked why the board wants to keep the documents under wraps, its president, Rob Rodewald, said members were following their lawyers’ advice.
The board also declined to release the employee’s grievance that triggered the investigation into Hollowell’s conduct. It cited a provision in the state’s open records law that exempts from disclosure any records that constitute “a clearly unwarranted invasion of personal privacy.”
In this situation, Crowley said, the records are “highly personal, and their release would be objectionable to a reasonable person, who, here, is the individual who made the complaint against the superintendent.”
“Redacting the complainant’s name would not protect her privacy since the community is aware of her identity,” the district said.
The attorney’s general’s office is expected to decide whether the records in question are open to the public.
A couple days before the June school board meeting, the Daily Journal obtained a letter from the board to reading coordinator Michelle Brosseau, who filed the complaint. In that document, the board informed Brosseau that it found the superintendent had violated its policies in relation to her allegations.
In early March, Brosseau filed a complaint against Hollowell, who became superintendent in 2013. She alleged the superintendent made inappropriate comments toward her.
A reading teacher, Michelle Erickson, made a similar complaint during the June meeting. Brosseau stood next to her.